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Psychological Phenomena

Cognitive dissonance

From Wikipedia:

“Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying…It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology…People are biased to think of their choices as correct, despite any contrary evidence. This bias gives dissonance theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling irrational and destructive behavior.”

This is certainly what I did when I put ugly things I discovered about the church “on a shelf.”  It was a subconscious attempt to reduce my dissonance and feel more comfortable about being part of an organization I didn’t fully agree with.

“Because it is often easier to make excuses than it is to change behavior, dissonance theory leads to the conclusion that humans are sometimes rationalizing and not always rational beings….Dissonance is aroused when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, the dissonance can result in misperception or rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others to restore consonance.”

That’s exactly how I now feel about my experience studying church history and modern policies.

A classic example illustrating a different type of cognitive dissonance is an experiment by Jack Brehm:

“225 female students rated a series of common appliances and were then allowed to choose one of two appliances to take home as a gift. A second round of ratings showed that the participants increased their ratings of the item they chose, and lowered their ratings of the rejected item.”

I think that’s particularly true in the church.  It’s easy to see the negative side of it: Mormons by nature, especially those who were raised Mormon, look down on other religions, often irrationally and without justification.  But they also frequently give greater credence to a facet of the LDS religion that doesn’t deserve that level of praise.

“Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal.”

In the extreme, this helps explain a suicide bomber.  He expects some grand reward in the next life.  But I think it is also true to a lesser extent in the church.  There are promises of eternal families, becoming Gods, etc. that reduce the unpleasantness of fulfilling a church calling or paying tithing.

The Ben Franklin Effect

In Ben Franklin’s own words:

“He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Basically, someone that does you a favor will think more highly of you than someone you did a favor for.  It’s an insidious psychological phenomenon that the church uses very effectively.  Without fully understanding it, I was taught it as a missionary.  The most effective method of getting an investigator to commit to baptism was to start him or her off very slowly with smaller commitments.  Once they had done small favors for you and for the church, it became far easier to convince them to make larger commitments.

More about the Ben Franklin Effect here.


The concept of groupthink is a powerful one.  I just want to briefly address a few aspects of it, again drawing heavily on Wikipedia.

“The wisdom of the crowd refers to the process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question…  The crowd tends to make its best decisions if it is made up of diverse opinions and ideologies. A crowd of like-minded individuals may contain bias, which can cloud their judgment and cause a less useful response to a given question. Crowds tend to work best when there is a correct answer to the question being posed, such as a question about geography or mathematics.”

I think in the church people are often supported in their dissonance by the idea that many people around them have the same belief system.  There is a general feeling that the crowd is united, therefore it must be true.  But that brings up three very important problems:

  1. The crowd is not diverse and is therefore much more prone to bias.  It’s a crowd made up almost exclusively of people who already share that same belief system.  So it wasn’t initially wisdom of the crowd, but rather is substantiated in the minds of the participants by that supposed wisdom.
  2. Belief in the church is a subjective opinion as opposed to a provable fact.  While the wisdom of the crowd may help solve a math problem, it is unable to effectively approach subjective matters without introducing significant bias.
  3. Belief in the church is a personal thing by necessity.  If you don’t receive a personal spiritual witness of its truth, then you rationally should not have any reason to believe it yourself.  Relying on the wisdom of the crowd would be a major psychological mistake.

On to one of my favorites, the bandwagon effect:

“The bandwagon effect is a well documented form of groupthink in behavioral science and has many applications. The general rule is that conduct or beliefs spread among people, as fads and trends clearly do, with “the probability of any individual adopting it increasing with the proportion who have already done so”. As more people come to believe in something, others also “hop on the bandwagon” regardless of the underlying evidence. The tendency to follow the actions or beliefs of others can occur because individuals directly prefer to conform…”

Wikipedia defines groupthink itself as:

“It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.”

While groupthinking is extremely dangerous in terms of not analyzing truth effectively, it also has other effects:

“The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking.”

Most of the initial work on the idea of groupthink came from a man named Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale.  Janis described three antecedent conditions:

  1. High group cohesiveness
  2. Structural faults:
    • insulation of the group
    • lack of impartial leadership
    • lack of norms requiring methodological procedures
    • homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology
  3. Situational context:
    • highly stressful external threats
    • recent failures
    • excessive difficulties on the decision-making task
    • moral dilemmas

Every single one of those seems very prevalent in the church and church history.  So what are Janis’ eight symptoms of groupthink?

Type I: Overestimations of the group—its power and morality

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

Type II: Closed-mindedness

  1. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  2. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

Type III: Pressures toward uniformity

  1. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  2. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  3. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  4. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

All eight of those fit so precisely in regards to the church that it’s creepy.  So what does Janis claim are the dangers of decision-making in cases like this?

  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selection bias in collecting information
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans.

These are the precise things I see from LDS apologists like FAIR.

Next step: Cognitive Biases

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